“Being a social leader is not a crime”: Candlelit vigils protest violence against social leaders across Colombia

By Sophie Foggin July 9, 2018
Velaton Por la Vida Human Rights Leaders Killed Colombia

Photo by Sophie Foggin.

On Friday evening, July 6, thousands across the country took part in the Velatón por la Vida protesting the continued violence against social leaders in Colombia.

The candlelit vigil took place in 21 squares and parks in different cities across Colombia, as well as many others worldwide.

“Peace shouldn’t cost lives,” chanted those who had gathered to show their support in Cartagena’s Plaza de la Paz, in the city’s historical centre.

Organisations and political parties that joined the cause included the PST (Partido Socialista de los Trabajadores), UP (Unión Patriótica), Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres, and Feminicidios Colombia, among many others.

The powerful vigil resisted the recent increase in threats and violence–which is attributed in part to this year’s presidential elections–whilst mourning the social leaders who have lost their lives campaigning for human rights in Colombia.

Within the last week alone nine people have been assassinated, detailed the PST. These include the Chocoan community leader Felicinda Santamaría, human rights defender Luis Barrios, Margarita Estupiñán from the village of Tumaco, Petro campaigner and human rights defender Ana María Cortés in Antioquia.

The PST called for a national strike in the event of any further killings and prison for paramilitary bandas. “From the PST we insist on the need to stop this increasing massacre, which has now cost the lives of 180 people in the last year, through the only way that really works for poor campesinos and the oppressed, which is to fight,” read a pamphlet that party representatives were handing out at the vigil.

Human Rights Leaders Assasinations Vigil Colombia

Photo – Sophie Foggin.

“They keep killing us because they fear us,” shouted a representative from the UP, who urged those present to “take to the streets.”

Protesters called for the lives of social leaders to be respected, listing the names of those who had lost their lives, followed by shouts of, “presente, presente, presente!”

Speaking to Noticias Caracol, a female representative from the Asociación de Mujeres de Bolívar outlined their association’s urge for President Santos and Iván Duque’s new incoming government to join the cause.

Organisations such as Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres and Feminicidios Colombia pointed out the particular vulnerability of female social leaders in Colombia, of whom 40 have been killed between January 1, 2016 and February 27, 2018. “In Colombia being a woman and an activist is a double risk for us,” denounced a representative from Ruta Pacífica.

Human Rights Leaders Assasinations Vigil Cartagena Colombia

Photo – Sophie Foggin.

“In the name of our leaders, not one minute of silence!” shouted those present, in unison and defiance, as they lit candles and stood together in name of the cause.

“For Life and for Peace,” tweeted this year’s presidential runner-up, Gustavo Petro. “People will no longer find a Colombia intimidated by fear, silenced by dread. As a society, we shall respond on the streets to death and hatred. When we are millions on the streets, the triggers will be stopped and cowards will flee.”

From Madrid, President-elect Iván Duque also posted a video in support of this message. “We have to guarantee the security of social leaders. No citizen must be intimidated by violence. We call upon the authorities to go forward with these investigations,” he said.

United Nations Colombia used their twitter feed to document the other vigils taking place across Colombia, from smaller manifestations in Cartagena, Cúcuta, Leticia, Caquetá and Montería, to much larger ones that took place in cities such as Cali, Medellín and Bogotá which saw thousands of people gather together. Government peace initiatives such as the Alto Comisionado para la Paz also took to twitter to show their support.